Subdivisions Impose Social Divide

Kaira Barry's Ashburn neighborhood has been transformed greatly in the five years since the photo she holds was taken.
Kaira Barry's Ashburn neighborhood has been transformed greatly in the five years since the photo she holds was taken. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 1, 2005

Lately, Ivan Barry, who is 12, feels like a stranger in a strange land, which is odd, since he and his family moved to their red brick rambler on Ryan Road in Loudoun County seven years ago, before most of their neighbors arrived.

They were part of a rural community then, their street mostly fields and woods where Ivan could romp with abandon, discovering creeks and paths to such hidden spots as an old mill, where he'd go sometimes to think, hunt for red-tailed skinks or just pretend that he was lost in the wilderness. Then, things changed.

It was not simply that thousands of houses came; it was how they came -- in such self-contained communities as Brambleton and Forest Manor, Forest Run and Belle Terra, all with their backs turned to the rambler. And Ivan, once the insider in a sense, became an outsider -- a resident of nowhere.

"At school, they're like, 'What development do you live in?' " Ivan said recently. "And I'm like, 'I don't live in a development!' And they're like, 'Do you live in the woods?' And I'm like, 'I've been living here for seven years!' And they're like, 'This didn't exist seven years ago!' " he said, throwing his hands in the air.

Scattered across such rapidly suburbanizing counties as Loudoun and Prince William in Northern Virginia and Charles and Frederick in Maryland are scraps of communities left behind. They are remnants of places where people live the old-fashioned way: in a house, on a road open to other roads, forming a place that anyone might pass through on the way to somewhere else.

Increasingly, these places have become balkanized by self-contained communities, now the dominant form of home building in suburban America. In Prince William and Loudoun, for instance, virtually all new homes in recent years have been built that way.

According to the Community Associations Institute in Alexandria, four out of five U.S. homes built since 2000 have been in homeowner association-governed subdivisions, where residents pay dues to support such amenities as clubhouses and pools that usually exclude those outside.

While life inside such places as Brambleton often is vibrant with block parties, poker nights, book clubs and a sense of identity, life on the outside feels quite different these days, altered in ways large and small.

"I don't know what community means anymore," said Nancy Siler, who is retired. "Do they mean subdivision? Or can it be a group of houses spread out?"

She was genuinely confused. Siler moved in 1956 to Gainesville, then a rural community in western Prince William. It was not a well-defined place, she said, but she felt she belonged.

She still lives on Linton Hall Road, which these days often is smeared with construction dirt and where signs point to Victory Lakes, Allison's Ridge, Broad Run Oaks, Braemar, Lake Manassas, Heritage Hunt, Independence, Dunbarton and others, the federation of subdivisions that Gainesville has become.

In relation to that new geography, Siler is tangential, in some netherworld in between.

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